To make children eat healthily, first persuade the parents

The campaign to 
persuade youngsters to eat five-a-day continues. Sheena Hastings reports on the latest efforts to help schoolchildren eat healthily.

Campaigners are encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables at school amid concerns that some youngsters are not eating enough, despite years of efforts to make school meals more healthy and widespread lobbying by the likes of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Pupils should eat at least two of their five-a-day at school, according to the Children’s Food Trust, but many children are not reaching this goal, new research suggests.

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Primary school pupils taking school dinners eat an average of 1.6 portions of fruit and veg at lunchtime, while those with packed lunches eat one portion. In secondary schools the picture is worse – students eating school meals have 0.8 portions of fruit and veg, with those taking lunchboxes eating just over half a portion, the research shows.

A small-scale study by children’s food writer and broadcaster Fiona Faulkner working in conjunction with the CFT, found that some young people aged between five and 15 are unsure where their fruit and vegetables come from and a fair number are still afraid to try new vegetable.

In one session with 200 pupils, spinach was the item most youngsters refused to try and 10 suggested that broccoli grows on trees. One child believed beetroot to be a poisonous plant.

Ms Faulkner and the Trust are launching a “Take Two” campaign to help parents and school cooks to encourage children to eat more fruit and veg each lunchtime at school.

They have put together a series of tips and recipes to include fruit and veg in meals. The suggestions include putting dried fruit into savoury dishes, such as apricots in tagines or curries; using grated carrots or courgettes in a homemade pizza base and including vegetables in savoury muffins.

Take-up of healthier school meals has increased in the last few years, with a rise from 39 per cent in 2008-09 to 44 per cent in 2012-11 in primary schools. In secondary schools the improvement has been slower, from 35 per cent to 37.6 per cent in the same period. The majority of children therefore still take a packed lunch to school, and this is where the main problem lies, says Ms Faulkner, who became a specialist in children’s nutrition after problems in getting her own toddler son to eat fruit and veg.

Her food research led her to write the book 25 Foods Kids Hate and How To Get Them Eating 24. She also leads healthy eating nutrition and cookery classes in schools, believing that children are much more likely to eat something they have cooked themselves.

“My son got to about 18 months old and started to become very picky. I tried all sorts of recipes that didn’t help then decided to make up my own. He’s seven now and will eat most things.

“Give me an hour – or preferably a term – teaching a child or group of children about healthy eating and making food they like to eat, and I can change them for life,” says Ms Faulkner. “But it’s very dispiriting, when kids have made something like cheese and spinach muffins or butternut and banana smoothie, for their parent to arrive and say ‘Uggh..I hate that kind of thing.’”

She acknowledges that it can be difficult to win children round to healthy eating if they are not given much in the way of fruit and veg at home or in a packed lunch, and they never see their parents eating healthily either.

“School cooks are unfairly maligned, when they are 
doing all sorts of clever things with fruit and veg now. The problem isn’t with provision but with children’s consumption. You can lead a child to a carrot, but you can’t make them eat it. I think parents need re-education about food,

“I don’t believe young children understand or are particularly interested in the connection between nutrition and good health. They will eat something if you can interest them in it and it’s tasty. But they do need to get encouragement at home with parents who show them by example.

“A child has a right to five portions of fruit and veg a day 
and although there is some 
debate about whether it’s a school’s role to uphold that right, I believe it is. It’s part of protecting the child.

“If I had my way all children at Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11) would learn to cook. All you need to get kids eating healthily are three things: cooking with them, adults setting a good example and recipes up your sleeve.”

Ms Faulkner said: “If we can 
get kids to eat two of their five-a-day every day in their school lunch by the end of 2013, that would be a huge step forward. It’s not easy, as our findings show. That’s why parents and school cooks need all the tips and tricks they can get.”